Nearly a third of high school graduates in Kazakhstan flunked their final exams this year, figures released by the government show. A total of 29 percent of the 95,487 students who took the important exam (which determines whether or not they will get into university) failed to make the grade.
This is a marked improvement on last year, when 37 percent of graduates didn’t pass, but it still shows that a remarkably high number of students are going through school without learning much. Those who fail can re-take the exam, but not until next summer.
Every year the school-leaving exam (known as ENT) generates controversy, with critics arguing that the multiple-choice format fails to test critical-thinking skills. Astana rejoins that it introduced the standardized test to replace school-led exams and standardize the final qualification.
The figures show that over twice as many students sat the exam in Kazakh as in Russian this year: 66,689 against 28,798, meaning that 70 percent of students are receiving their education in the Kazakh language. Parents can opt to send their children to schools teaching in Russian or Kazakh (and a few other languages such as Uzbek), but Kazakh and Russian language classes are compulsory for all students.
Cheating remains rife: This year invigilators across Kazakhstan confiscated 28,000 banned objects such as cellphones from exam halls and identified six people impersonating others to sit the test on their behalf.
Officers from the domestic intelligence service are deployed in schools at exam time in testament to how seriously education officials take cheating, but to some that’s no deterrent.
Americans are still forbidden from adopting Kazakh children, an official in Astana has said. The ban will continue until Kazakhstan receives a satisfactory explanation from US authorities about the circumstances in which two orphans from the Central Asian state were found in a home for troubled kids last year.
The two children were found on a ranch housing children with “deviant behavior” in July 2012, Raisa Sher, chairwoman of the government’s Committee for the Protection of Children’s Rights, told Tengri News on June 12.
She did not name the children’s home, but last July there were children from Kazakhstan among those staying at the Ranch for Kids Project in Montana when a group of Russian officials turned up with a film crew in tow to demand access to Russian orphans and created an outcry when they were refused.
The ranch describes itself as “a respite care home for adopted children who are experiencing difficulties in their families.” Russian children’s rights ombudsman Pavel Astakhov, a member of the delegation that visited last summer, described it as “a trash can for unwanted children.”
Sher said that Astana had not received “information” from the American authorities despite requesting clarification over the incident, and therefore “we are not renewing the adoption procedure with the United States of America until we receive a response from that country under the Hague Convention on the fulfilment of international obligations.”
The wife of fugitive Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov has been deported from Italy to Kazakhstan, where she is facing a criminal investigation as Astana steps up its four-year campaign against the businessman.
Alma Shalabayeva was arrested on the outskirts of Rome overnight May 28-29 along with her six-year-old daughter, Alua Ablyazova, Kazakhstan’s prosecutor’s office confirmed on June 3. Spokesman Nurdaulet Suindikov said Shalabayeva was arrested in possession of a forged passport “with clear signs of fictitiousness, supposedly issued by the Central African Republic in the name of Ayan Alma.”
He said Shalabayeva, currently residing with relatives in Almaty, is under investigation in Kazakhstan for forgery offenses and has signed an agreement not to leave the city.
Ablyazov has accused the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev of “kidnapping” his wife and daughter. In a Facebook posting on June 3, he questioned the speed of the deportation and said his wife had told him she was flown out of Italy on a “luxurious” chartered aircraft accompanied by consular staff from Kazakhstan.
Her Italian lawyer, Riccardo Olivo, also questioned the rapid unfolding of events. “It is incredible how quickly this took place,” he told Reuters on June 1. “They handed her over as a hostage to a dictator and this is very grave.”
Archeologists in Kazakhstan have discovered the ancient grave of a young woman who has acquired the nickname “Princess of the Scythians.”
The elaborate tomb was found in Urdzhar district in eastern Kazakhstan during road repairs, Tengri News reports, quoting expedition leader Timur Smagulov. A team of lecturers and students was called in to investigate, and the group unearthed a stone sarcophagus containing the body of a young girl.
The “Princess of the Scythians” was clearly a prominent figure, judging by the treasures buried with her, most notably a gold headdress decorated with figures of animals and topped with arrowheads. It is similar to the one worn by Kazakhstan’s most famous archeological find, the Golden Man – a Scythian warrior prince interred wearing some 4,000 gold ornaments.
This type of headdress was part of the ceremonial clothing that the leaders of the Scythians – who inhabited the Eurasian steppe in ancient times – used to parade in, Smagulov said. “It is quite possible that the buried woman was the daughter of a king of the Saka Tigrakhuda tribe.”
The grave – which also contained ceramics and the bones of a sacrificed sheep – is believed to date from the 4th or 3rd century BC, the same period as the Golden Man’s burial site.
Amazing archeological finds are nothing new for Kazakhstan. Back in 2010 archeologists discovered the tomb of a gold-clad ancient Scythian warrior, nicknamed “The Sun Lord,” whose torso was entirely covered with gold.
The U.S. State Department released its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism," which purports to summarize and analyze the "terrorist" threats around the world. Here is the report's summary of Central Asia in 2012:
Despite the absence of major terrorist incidents on their territory, governments in the five Central Asian states were concerned about the possibility of a growing threat connected to changes in the international force presence in Afghanistan in 2014. While some sought to reduce their countries’ vulnerability to the perceived terrorist threat, the effectiveness of their efforts was in some cases undercut by failure to distinguish clearly between terrorism on one hand and political opposition, or non-traditional religious practices, on the other.
On the occasion of last year's report, Myles Smith wrote on EurasiaNet that "For the most part, the report simply lists what authorities describe as terrorist attacks and as anti-terrorist operations, but uses qualifying terms – 'reportedly'; 'potentially' – that make it clear State is as in the dark on the nature of the events as the rest of us." A year later, there's really nothing to add to that analysis. But it's worth noting that, if the U.S. is spending increasing amounts of money, and making counter-terror assistance an increasingly large part of U.S. activity in the area, it might behoove Washington to be a little clearer about what exactly it is that this money and diplomatic effort are being directed at.
Looking at the individual country listings is instructive. Here is Tajikistan's summary:
Kazakhstan’s Supreme Court has freed six people jailed for their roles in fatal unrest in December 2011, when police opened fire on protestors in the western oil town of Zhanaozen.
The ruling, which surprised many observers, suggests that the authorities are making further moves to put behind them a bout of turmoil that left 15 civilians dead and damaged the reputation of President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his administration. The unrest spun out of a protracted energy sector strike that the government acknowledges was mishandled.
The Supreme Court ruled on May 28 to free six of 13 Zhanaozen protestors jailed last June, Tengri News reports. The ruling left their convictions intact but suspended their sentences.
The sentences of seven others jailed after a controversial trial last year amid allegations of torture, including prominent strike leader Roza Tuletayeva, were left unchanged. Tuletayeva was originally handed a seven-year sentence; it was cut to five on appeal.
Of four protestors jailed separately over a bout of related violence in the town of Shetpe near Zhanaozen, one was freed by the Supreme Court on appeal in January.
Kazakhstan’s self-appointed morality police are taking on the gay and lesbian community: In recent weeks, lawmakers’ homophobic rants have echoed through the hallowed halls of parliament as they call for homosexuality to be criminalized.
Homosexuality is “amorality of the highest degree,” blustered deputy Aldan Smayyl in parliament on May 22, Kazakhstan Today reported.
“A law should be adopted which would allow [homosexuals] to be considered criminals against humanity,” Smayyl – who represents the ruling Nur Otan party, headed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev – continued.
He has sent a query to Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov about adopting a law and is awaiting a response.
“In Almaty there are already 20 gay clubs; in Astana four clubs! What sort of disgrace is this?” Smayyl ranted in further remarks broadcast on KTK TV.
His bid to criminalize homosexuality – which flies in the face of Kazakhstan’s constitutional guarantee of equal rights for all – comes as the rights of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community are increasingly the subject of public debate in Kazakhstan, partly sparked by a symbolic lesbian wedding held last month.
There is no legal mechanism for gay marriage in Kazakhstan, nor is any planned. But that didn’t stop parliamentary deputy Kairbek Suleymenov (another Nur Otan stalwart) from demanding action against something that doesn’t exist.
It has long been an open secret that some police officers in Kazakhstan turn a blind eye to criminal activity in exchange for a share of the proceeds. But rarely do male officers end up fleeing the scene of the crime dressed in drag.
This is what happened in the western city of Atyrau last week, according to a report carried in local newspaper Ak Zhayyk on May 26. Its correspondent on the scene described seeing two male police officers decked out in women’s clothes bolting from a brothel.
According to the newspaper, two officers arrived at an apartment block in Atyrau around 5 a.m. after a confrontation between alleged pimps and sex workers working out of an apartment and their infuriated neighbors.
The officers entered the apartment, but when they hadn’t emerged after an hour neighbors called another police squad, whose officers arrived and sat outside in their car.
A woman then emerged from the alleged brothel, got into the squad car and proceeded to hurl insults at the neighbors and throw a bottle at them while the newly arrived police looked on, Ak Zhayyk said.
A bizarre scene then ensued as, amid the disturbance, the first two police officers emerged from inside the brothel, “one in a long beige women’s jacket, under which [police] uniform pants were peeping out,” the other in “tight” women’s pants.
When the officers sitting outside failed to make a move, a pregnant woman and an elderly man resorted to giving chase themselves. But “the forces were unequal” and the two sergeants in drag escaped.
Following the launch of a corruption probe in the UK involving a natural resources giant with strong links to Kazakhstan, the company, ENRC, has become the subject of a hostile takeover bid by powerful interests with connections to the Central Asian state.
The three oligarchs who founded the London-listed Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation – Alexander Machkevitch, Patokh Chodiev and Alijan Ibragimov (who are all believed to have powerful connections in Kazakhstan) – have teamed up with the Kazakh government to mount the takeover. Together the four parties hold a combined 55.33 percent of ENRC, with the three founders owning equal shares of 14.56 percent each and Astana owning 11.65 percent.
ENRC’s committee of independent directors has rejected the bid on the grounds that it “materially undervalues ENRC,” according to a May 17 statement.
The committee said that the City of London’s Panel on Takeovers and Mergers, which regulates takeover bids for London Stock Exchange-listed firms, had granted its request for an extension until June 3 for a decision on the bid, to allow the consortium time to make a better offer – something there is no guarantee it will do.
The takeover panel issued a statement on May 20 saying that another London-listed company linked to Kazakhstan, the Kazakhmys copper miner, is officially to be treated as part of the takeover bid, because Astana plans to use its stake in Kazakhmys to finance the ENRC buyout.
Authorities in Kazakhstan are again undermining religious freedom with the detention of a Protestant pastor and a Baptist leader on unrelated charges, a watchdog says.
Pastor Bakhytzhan Kashkumbayev of Astana's Grace Church was detained May 19 on vague charges related to how he said his prayers. Forum 18, the Oslo-based religious freedom watchdog, reports that Kashkumbayev was questioned on May 17 and two days later remanded for two months' pre-trial detention on “unclear charges, apparently including praying and singing.”
In an unrelated case, in early May Baptist leader Aleksey Asetov from Ekibastuz in northeastern Kazakhstan spent three days in jail for failing to pay a fine imposed for holding a worship meeting without state permission. In 2011, Astana introduced legislation vastly curbing the activities of unregistered religious groups in the country.
The Astana police told local media on May 18 that Pastor Kashkumbayev was detained on suspicion of committing an offence under Article 103 of Kazakhstan's criminal code, which can carry a sentence of between three and seven years’ imprisonment.
The Grace Church had a run-in with the authorities last October when it was bizarrely accused of spiking its communion wine with unidentified hallucinogens.
The exact nature of the charges against Kashkumbayev are unclear, but members of the church who attended his arraignment told Forum 18 he was detained, not for the wine, “but for praying in tongues and singing.”